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WWII vet recalls D-Day and flying with the 8th Air Force

Roy Jorgenson recalls his service days from the 8th Air Force and his bombing mission to Caen in Normandy, France, on the morning of D-Day, June 6, 1944.

FERGUS FALLS, Minn. – At 93, Roy Jorgenson’s eyesight is fading. The aging vet wearing a “Mighty 8th Air Force” T-shirt can make out shadows and shapes and get around at the Minnesota Veterans Home here.

But in his mind’s eye, the former World War II ball turret gunner can still clearly see the massive flotilla of ships that filled the English Channel on June 6, 1944.

Cocooned in the turret of his B-24 bomber on the way to bomb the French port of Caen, Jorgenson had a bird’s eye view of the immense combat power focused on the shores of Normandy for the D-Day invasion, which kicked off the Allies’ drive on Nazi Germany from the west.

“When we took off that morning and we crossed the channel, you can’t imagine,” Jorgenson said, recalling that sight 70 years ago today. “Everywhere I turned the ball turret, there was nothing but ships.”

It wasn’t unusual for the crews to get up at 4 or 5 in the morning to eat and prepare for a mission, Jorgenson said. But on D-Day, the bomber crews knew something was up when they were rousted at 2 a.m.

When the shroud was pulled from the briefing room map, the briefer told them they were making history.

“Today is a special day. Today is D-Day,” Jorgenson remembers the man saying.

But there was no cheering, he said.

“We knew we had a job to do,” he said. “Everybody flew that could fly.”

The D-Day invasion involved more than 156,000 troops in airborne and seaborne assaults from the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Free France and Norway.

In all, 5,000 ships and landing craft, 11,000 planes and 50,000 vehicles were part of the initial assault, according to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

On that bloody day alone, U.S. forces suffered 6,603 killed, wounded, missing or captured. The United Kingdom had 2,700 casualties and Canada 1,074.

German casualties for D-Day aren’t known with certainty. Estimates vary between 4,000 and 9,000, according to the WWII Museum.

Before his part in the war’s European theater was done, Jorgenson was credited with 26 combat missions, one of which included a crash landing.

He also earned a Purple Heart medal after being wounded on another mission.

Jorgenson grew up in Newfolden, the oldest of 10 boys.

He had taught for a time in schools in Euclid and Hallock, and also worked in the stockyards in South St. Paul, before enlisting in June 1942 at the age of 21.

“I wanted to fly. I wanted to be a pilot,” Jorgenson said.

A huge training backlog kept him at home until Jan. 29, 1943. He then went to three weeks of basic training in Biloxi, Miss.

Jorgenson didn’t make the cut for pilot, but was offered gunner, cook or truck driver.

He stuck with being a gunner, and spent six weeks in Harlingen, Texas, for gunnery school.

His scrapbook includes a picture of a handsome young man with a big grin wearing a leather cap and goggles, buddied up with a heavy machine gun at his side.

Jorgenson then returned to Biloxi for mechanic’s training to be certified as a flight engineer.

He eventually became a gunner for the crew of pilot Thomas A. Pearson and co-pilot John Orlosky. Despite being 5 feet 10 inches tall, Jorgenson was assigned the ball turret, a tight fit.

That “was a little tough for me, but I was the smallest one on the crew,” Jorgenson said.

Their trip to Europe took a southern swing from Key West, Fla., to Trinidad and then Brazil. They flew overnight to Africa. They then swung out over the ocean to land in Scotland, and later, at their home base in Sudbury, England, 100 miles north of London.

There, the crew became part of the 832nd Bombardment Squadron (Heavy) – the “Bats out of Hell.”

The first combat mission for the crew was May 5, 1944, to bomb an airfield in France. They had seven official missions and one recall before D-Day.

Many of the B-24’s missions were in France, but there also were strikes in Belgium and Germany.

It was the 19th mission that could have spelled the end for the 10-man crew, Jorgenson recalled.

Over Holland, the bomber was hit by anti-aircraft fire in the cockpit, seriously injuring the pilot and co-pilot and knocking out an engine.

The bomb bay doors had to be cranked open manually to release the bombs so the plane could safely land.

Before he passed out from his wounds and loss of blood, the pilot put the bomber on autopilot.

The co-pilot for a time had drifted in and out of consciousness. The co-pilot and the bombardier – who had experience as a glider pilot – managed to make a perfect crash landing, skidding to a halt in a pasture in England.

Jorgenson’s last six missions were flown in B-17s, a much-tougher aircraft, he said.

But it was on his second-to-last mission, on Aug. 8, 1944, to Mannheim, Germany, where Jorgenson was wounded.

A shard of shrapnel from an anti-aircraft shell exploded near the bomber and ripped through one of the ball turret’s windows, burying itself in his right leg, he said.

Six weeks later, he flew his final combat mission over Germany.

He was then assigned to the 490th Bomb Group to be a gunnery instructor in England.

Jorgenson later returned to the U.S. for training as a ground crew chief for B-29 bombers when the war officially ended on Sept. 2, 1945, with the official surrender of Japan.

At the time, his bosses wanted him to stay in the military.

“They really wanted to keep me in because they had put so much money into my training,” he said.

But his thoughts were, “No way. I want to have my freedom.”

He mustered out of the military on Sept. 25, 1945, a family history shows.

Two other Jorgenson brothers fought in World War II, he said. One was a paratrooper who jumped into Holland.

Five other Jorgenson brothers also served in the U.S. military in later years, he said.

After the war, Jorgenson attended the Minnesota School of Business and earned a degree in accounting and business administration.

He worked at a Chevrolet auto dealership for 15 years, then became director of the Inter-County Community Council in Oklee, running a program that weatherized and remodeled homes and delivered fuel to the poor. He retired in 1986.

About the time he took the job in Oklee, he married Catherine Radniecki Jensen. The bachelor from a family of 10 boys suddenly gained five daughters.

Though his wife has died, he said his daughters treat him “like I was a king.”

Looking back on the war, Jorgenson said the sacrifice was worth it.

“I was glad to do the service,” Jorgenson said.

Helmut Schmidt

Helmut Schmidt was born in Germany, but grew up in the Twin Cities area, graduating from Park High School of Cottage Grove. After serving a tour in the U.S. Army, he attended the University of St. Thomas in St Paul, Minn., graduating in 1984 with a degree in journalism. He then worked at the Albert Lea (Minn.) Tribune and served as managing editor there for three years. He joined The Forum in October 1989, working as a copy editor until 2000. Since then, he has worked as a reporter on several beats, including education, Fargo city government, business and military affairs. He is currently The Forum's K-12 education reporter.

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